It's a Different Kind of Blue in ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’

by Chris Barsanti

9 September 2012

The portraits of failed genius in Wes Anderson’s melancholic comedy inhabit a frozen kind of entrapping nostalgia, which somehow the film’s anarchic comedy bursts free from.

Lonely Together

cover art

The Royal Tenenbaums

Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Danny Glover, Seymour Cassel, Kumar Pallana

(Touchstone Pictures)
US DVD: 14 Aug 2012

“That’s the last time you put a knife in me!”
—Royal Tenenbaum

It would be too reductive by half to say that all of Wes Anderson’s films are about people who don’t fit in. Yes, his characters are on the oddball end of the spectrum, to the point that one wonders whether he starts writing his characters from a list of tics. But in Anderson’s better films, he doesn’t fall prey to the common bugaboo of those artists who celebrate the unique, those lonely square pegs which can’t fit into society’s round holes. Namely, he doesn’t even bother creating much of an outside world to judge them for their curious behavior. There is no island of misfit toys for his characters to retreat to, because the whole that is visible doesn’t seem much different. Everybody doesn’t fit in, together.

In The Royal Tenenbaums, which remains Anderson’s richest and most accomplished film, he takes his zeal for crafting little storybook worlds to its logical zenith. It’s a film about a family of eccentrics whose children were all considered geniuses at one time. They all lived in a grand old Manhattan mansion whose top spire features a fluttering flag with a “T” on it for Tenenbaum. As the film begins, all the children, though theoretically grown to adulthood, are returning to the nest one by one to work out their arrested childhoods under one roof in the well-preserved confines of their perfectly wonderful rooms (each of them a miniature fairy kingdom, designed to spec).

The three child-geniuses are all distinct types, with their own variations on failure. Chas (Ben Stiller) is some kind of unspecified financial genius who once bred a unique species of Dalmatian mice; Anderson makes sure to show them still scampering about the house years later. Having lost his wife to a plane crash, Chas is now obsessed with the safety of his children, Ari and Uzi—they all wear matching track suits and operate like some odd military unit.

Richie (Luke Wilson) was a tennis pro of some repute (nickname: “The Baumer”) before losing it all in an epic choke during a televised match; he couldn’t handle seeing the love of his life in the stands with her new husband. The love of Richie’s life is actually his sister, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow, raccoon-eyed and teenage-misery embodied), who was adopted from Indiana farmfolk and had some renown as a young playwright before marrying a morose anthropologist (Bill Murray) and running headlong into a years-long bout of writer’s block.

Bouncing around it all is Eli Cash (Anderson’s college confederate Owen Wilson, also an executive producer here), a Cormac McCarthy-esque author and mescaline freak who grew up across the street and is something of a fourth sibling, even though he’s carrying on an affair with Margot.

Operating parallel to the children’s melodrama is the attempt of the litigator patriarch Royal (Gene Hackman, in the one other role since 1992’s Unforgiven where it seemed like he was truly trying) to get back in with his long estranged wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston), who had a problem with his philandering, lying, and general scumbaggery. Although the love triangle that develops between the grown-ups—Danny Glover is there as the bow-tied accountant vying with Royal for Etheline’s favor—doesn’t have the urgency of the roiling trauma afflicting the younger generation, it manages to stay alive by dint of Hackman’s gleeful take on the old rake. It’s hard not to like a guy whose idea of bonding with his grandchildren is taking them for a ride on a garbage truck and showing them how to shoplift from a convenience store.

Although there are laughs in The Royal Tenenbaums (quite a lot of them if you’re in the right frame of mind), they tend to be of the melancholic. Part of this is the soundtrack, with its wafting strains of Elliot Smith and Nico. Another element is the semi-fantastical setting, the New York that never quite existed (the taxis labeled “Gypsy Cab, Co.”, the “375th Street Y”) which feels like the city as imagined to be when first encountered by a child.The film deals in a free-floating nostalgia, with its unclear time period but the ‘70s and ‘80s artifacts (encyclopedias, record players, old computers and board games) littering the screen like mementos of a frozen past.It’s a rainy-day kind of comedy that Anderson puts together here, shrouded in a distantly Salingerian narration (Alec Baldwin, back before he regularly started appearing in interesting films) and mixing its deadpan humor with occasional stabs at honest tragedy. It’s comedy with blood on its hands.

In the Blu-ray edition from Criterion, you’ll find most of what you would desire from a Criterion (i.e., a superb video transfer) and a smattering of what you don’t necessarily need. The two deleted scenes here don’t bring much to the discussion, and much of what else is there (cast interviews, an Albert Maysles portrait of the director) only emphasizes the extreme care with which Anderson has put the film together. (The footage of Anderson minutely correcting the Roz Chast-like illustrations that his brother Eric created for the Tenenbaum mansion is the last word in perfectionism.) This is all well and good, but all one truly needed to know about Anderson’s approach to his material can be gleaned from the screen.

Too much can easily be made of this perfectionism, the improbable attention to detail that has Anderson building hundreds of sets (some for scenes that last a second or less) and creating an entire world inside the Tenanbaum mansion. This architectural approach has been a hallmark of his films, a distancing one to some that occasionally squeezed the life out of his narratives (the problem appeared particularly acute in the prop-littered Moonrise Kingdom). But the bouncing rebel comedy of the aged Royal, inhabited so well by Hackman’s cackling destructive gleefulness, helps burst the film free from Anderson’s everything-in-its-right-place construction and its many stony silences.

Each one of the Tenenbaums might be alone, and quietly miserable in a vaguely contented way, but at least they’re lonely as a family. That’s some kind of solace.

The Royal Tenenbaums


Extras rating:

//Mixed media

Call for Essays on Topics in Culture; Present, Past and the Speculative Future

// Announcements

"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…

READ the article